The 39 Steps is a 2008 British television adventure thriller feature-length adaptation of the 1915 John Buchan novel The Thirty-Nine Steps produced by the BBC. It was written by Lizzie Mickery, directed by James Hawes, and filmed on location in Scotland, starring Rupert Penry-Jones, Lydia Leonard, David Haig, Eddie Marsan, and Patrick Malahide.
This adaptation is set on the eve of the First World War and sees mining engineer Richard Hannay caught up in an espionage conspiracy following the death of a British spy in his flat.
The single drama was first shown on BBC One and BBC HD on 28 December 2008 as part of BBC One’s Christmas 2008 line-up, and it was the most watched programme of the day. Compared to Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, it received mostly negative reviews from the press. The production was criticised for its historical inaccuracies, particularly its use of anachronistic props.
Part of The 39 Steps Franchise.
The story starts on 28 June 1914; Richard Hannay (Rupert Penry-Jones), a mining engineer and an intelligence officer during the Second Boer War, is in London following his recent return from Africa, finding England “cliquey”, “class-bound” and “deathly, deathly dull”. Evading German spies (Werner Daehn and Peter Stark), Scudder (Eddie Marsan) pushes himself into Hannay’s flat and reveals himself to be a betrayed freelance British Secret Service Bureau agent, who has been on the trail of a German espionage ring with headquarters in Scotland. He has heard rumours of a plot to assassinate a high-ranking European royal, which could lead to war. Believing he will soon be killed, he hands Hannay a notebook to pass to Captain Kell of the Secret Service Bureau. While Hannay answers the door, Scudder is shot by one of the German spies seeking his notebook who has entered the flat via a back door. The police arrive, and Hannay is arrested for murder before escaping.
Unable to contact Kell, Hannay flicks through the notebook, finding it contains pages of code using Roman numerals. He finds a map in the back and takes a train to Scotland to prove Scudder right, attempting to decipher the code en route. Finding out Archduke Ferdinand has been assassinated, Hannay reaches Scotland and leaves the train to escape the police. He stays in a barn overnight, where he deciphers the code in the notebook (except a section in double code), which reveals the Germans want to destroy the Royal Navy so that they could invade the country, starting a war. Chased by the police, the Germans and machine-gun-fire from a biplane, he encounters brother and sister Harry and Victoria Sinclair, a prospective Member of Parliament and a suffragette respectively (Patrick Kennedy and Lydia Leonard), who believe him to be a Liberal spokesman. At a political rally in a nearby town (Culross) where Hannay meets Sir George Sinclair, Harry and Victoria’s uncle (David Haig), Victoria aids Hannay’s attempt to escape, before they are captured by the Germans. With the notebook missing from Hannay’s pocket, they are taken to Longkeep Castle (Dumbarton Castle), the headquarters of the German espionage ring, where they are imprisoned by Professor Fisher (Patrick Malahide). Sir George arrives as they are captured and inquires about them while they are held in another room. After he leaves they are bound and gagged and placed in the cellar. They escape and return to where they were captured to look for the notebook, which Victoria reveals she had picked from Hannay’s pocket and hidden. They stay overnight in an inn, where Hannay details the contents of the notebook to Victoria.
In the morning, they escape to Harry’s house, where Victoria unsuccessfully attempts to contact Captain Kell. Hannay, alone, meets with Sir George, who sits on the defence committee. Hannay reveals the contents of the notebook, leading to Sir George disclosing that a meeting of the National Committee of Defence is being held the next day at Stirling Castle to unveil new naval plans, matching part of the double code. Later, Hannay and Victoria kiss, and the next morning he sees her leaving with a man, whom he recalls seeing previously on the train and at the rally. With the notebook missing and finding out that Victoria disconnected the call she made to the Secret Service Bureau before it was connected, Hannay goes to Stirling Castle, believing Victoria to be a traitor. There, Victoria reveals she works for the Secret Service Bureau and he meets Kell (Alex Jennings) and Wakeham, the man Victoria left with earlier (Steven Elder), who reveal they used Hannay to distract the Germans and sent Victoria to keep an eye on him. Hannay deduces that Sir George is the traitor, as he should have heard them when he was at Fisher’s House, and, with his photographic memory, has escaped with the naval plans memorised. To identify his rendezvous point with the Germans, they crack the remaining code, referring to the room they were previously imprisoned in at Longkeep Castle, and discover “39 steps” written in the notebook by Scudder using invisible ink. At the Castle, Hannay and Victoria find 39 steps leading to a loch. A shoot-out ensues, and a German U-boat surfaces in the loch. Fisher, the Germans and Sir George fail to get to the U-boat before it submerges, and surrender.
Together by the loch, Hannay and Victoria kiss before she is hit by a bullet fired by a surviving gunman, falls into the loch and disappears. The story concludes four months later, after the declaration of the First World War, when Hannay, in a British Army officer’s uniform, is waiting to meet someone at St Pancras Station. Harry appears, saying that Victoria wanted to say goodbye, and Hannay sees her in the distance. In reply to Hannay’s bewilderment, Harry tells him, “top secret, old man.” Victoria disappears behind a luggage trolley and Harry tells Hannay she will see him after the war.
- Rupert Penry-Jones – Richard Hannay.
- Lydia Leonard – Victoria Sinclair.
- David Haig – Sir George Sinclair.
- Patrick Malahide – Professor Fisher.
- Patrick Kennedy – Hellory Sinclair.
- Eddie Marsan – Scudder.
- Alex Jennings – Captain Kell.
- Steven Elder – Vicar / Wakeham.
- Werner Daehn – Ackerman.
- Peter Stark – Engel.
- Sean Kane – London Constable.
- Del Synnott – London Constable.
- Roger De Courcey – Ventriloquist.
- David Gallacher – Professor’s Butler.
- James Bryce – Concierge at Club.
- Stewart Preston – Waiter at Club.
Announced by the BBC in August 2008, filming began in September 2008 for a first broadcast at Christmas. Penry-Jones, who had previously worked on the spy drama Spooks, took the lead role, with the screenplay written by Lizzie Mickery (co-writer of the dramas The State Within and Messiah), produced by Lynn Horsford (Boy A, The Mark of Cain) and directed by James Hawes (Fanny Hill, Merlin, Doctor Who).
At the time of the announcement, Horsford said: “With this adaptation we wanted to stay faithful to the spirit and period of the book, but asked the writer Lizzie to feel free to re-imagine it for a modern audience more familiar with James Bond and Jason Bourne.” The production was set around the eve of the First World War and retained other elements from the book, including having the 39 steps refer to steps to a departure point, but according to The Times’ thriller critic it has “a style that gives more than a nod to the grittier James Bond of Daniel Craig”. A piece in The Observer stated that Mickery was “braced for complaints this Christmas from fans of previous screen portrayals”, after basing her plot on the original book rather than the films. Differences from the book include the introduction of romance for Hannay, through suffragette and spy Victoria Sinclair, played by Lydia Leonard, and, according to Serena Davies of The Daily Telegraph, “a plot with so many twists and turns you almost need a degree in espionage to follow it”.
Penry-Jones read the book and saw the other versions of the film, but said that Hitchcock’s 1959 film North by Northwest was “more of a template for me than any version of The 39 Steps”. Explaining why he took on the part, he said to Tim Oglethorpe of the Daily Record:
Part of the appeal was the cars, I’m a bit of a buff … And I said – jokingly, of course – that I wouldn’t be in The 39 Steps unless the action included the famous chase scene in which Hannay is pursued by a biplane. I’ve always wanted to be chased by a plane like Cary Grant in the movie North by Northwest and I was just delighted when it happened in our version of Steps.
Filming took place on location in Scotland. Locations used included the area around West Register Street in Edinburgh for the London scenes at the start of the film, Bo’ness railway station, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum for the interior scenes of St Pancras railway station, Glasgow City Chambers, Culross, Stirling Castle, Dumbarton Castle, the highlands of Argyll and Loch Katrine, used for the finale.
The production was shot using 35 mm film rather than high-definition cameras. Hawes told Matthew Bell of Broadcast that:
Film is absolutely right for this project. It has scale, big exterior locations and that’s something that still challenges HD …. The HD cameras available to us on our budget are still vulnerable in difficult weather conditions [encountered during filming]. There’s no doubt that what we’ve got on 35mm is just so much more detailed. It has so much more depth of field and richness than we could have got on HD.
Some artistic licence was used to find the appropriate props. Cars used included a 1924 Morris Oxford, a 1926 Darracq, and a 1927 Wolseley, previously used in the 1960s series Dr Finlay’s Casebook. Willie Bennie, who sourced the vehicles, told the Daily Record:
I knew they were wanting to include car chases to make the drama much more exciting to watch. The only trouble was that the cars around this era weren’t very fast.
The biplane that chased Hannay was a 1916 Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5a, and his apartment is shown as being in a 1920s-style Art Deco building. Other minor mistakes included an anachronistic colour scheme for the British Railway carriages, and the appearance of a Philips 78 gramophone despite the company not being established until 1950.
Ben Stephenson, Head of Drama Commissioning at the BBC, told The Daily Telegraph in reply to complaints about the inaccuracies, said:
The question is: for the seven million people who watched it, did it feel authentic, did it create a sense of period? …We were creating a realistic world within a world – a world of damsels and heroes and a huge amount of excitement. That, for me, is the priority. Did it create that world? It absolutely did. That’s not to say that we don’t work increasingly hard to get everything right. But it’s hard to get all the details right when it’s a 21st century drama, never mind anything earlier.
The adaptation was originally planned to be broadcast on BBC One on Boxing Day, but was later moved to a Sunday night slot on 28 December. It was simulcast in high-definition on BBC HD.
Overnight viewing figures estimated that the programme was seen by 7.3 million viewers (28% audience share) on 28 December 2008, against a Top Gear: Vietnam Special on BBC Two. It was the most watched programme of the day.
The adaptation received mostly negative reviews from the press, believing it did not match up to Hitchcock’s 1935 film version (as predicted by Lizzie Mickery, writer of the screenplay).
The adaptation was released on Region 2 DVD on 02 February 2009, and Region 1 DVD on 2 March 2010.
Penry-Jones said prior to broadcast that, depending on the reception, “They’d like to do more if they can. I definitely would.”
- The ventriloquist on the train who helps Hannay to avoid the police, is Roger De Courcey a well known British performer, who used to appear with a teddy bear named ‘Nookie Bear’.
The 39 Steps Films and TV Series
You can find a full index and overview of The 39 Steps franchise here.
Production & Filming Details
- James Hawes.
- Peter Gallagher … line producer.
- Lynn Horsford … producer.
- Hilary Salmon … executive producer.
- John Yorke … executive producer.
- John Buchan … based upon the novel by.
- Lizzie Mickery … screenplay.
- Rob Lane.
- James Aspinall … director of photography.
- Tania Reddin.
- British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (as BBC Productions).
- British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) (2008) (UK) (TV) (BBC1).
- Dutch FilmWorks (DFW) (2009) (Netherlands) (DVD).
- ITV DVD (2009) (UK) (DVD).
- Moviemax Family (2012) (Turkey) (TV).
- New Select K.K. (2009) (Japan) (DVD).
- Release Date: 28 December 2008 (UK).
- Rating: PG.
- Running Time: 90 minutes.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.